Never send a man to do a robot’s mission.

Equipped to explore the rough terrain on Mars, the rover Curiosity will try to determine if the planet was once capable of sustaining life. (Paul DiMare)
Air & Space Magazine

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The 30 or so JPL scientists and 270 other lab workers, mostly engineers, assigned to Curiosity (among more than 5,000 from various agencies and institutions nationwide who have had a hand in the project) are hardly ignorant of the risks in their business. Regardless, for many, it’s hard not to get excited as Curiosity approaches the end of its eight-month voyage.

An “11” on a 10 scale is how Matt Robinson, 37, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Notre Dame, predicts his workday will be when the rover touches down and gets busy. “The first time you build a [computer] sequence and you command the arm to do something and you get back the images from the previous day, and you realize that that spacecraft is 250 million miles away, it’s kind of like the Holy Grail,” he says, eyes gleaming.

Grotzinger, though, stresses the need for patience, since the rover, if all goes well, will transmit data for at least two years, and scientists will then spend years analyzing the return. But he says that large-scale missions are worthwhile because “kids get excited. They get turned on to math and science, and go on to great things that have nothing to do with planetary science. And all that money that we spend on these missions? It’s not getting shipped to Mars. It’s all being spent here on Earth, producing jobs and stimulating the economy.”

A casual observer on the JPL campus might never realize the facility’s significance as a key center of space exploration. Snuggled against the San Gabriel Mountains, about 16 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, JPL resembles less a haven for rocket scientists than a nondescript business park. Employees, one-quarter of whom hold doctorates, favor jeans and open-collar shirts. They sip lattes on work breaks, and peck away at smartphones while mule deer nibble on the lab’s park-like landscaping.

The JPL campus encompasses 176 acres, which sounds expansive. But with about 5,000 employees and space for only 4,474 cars, parking is coveted. Unless you’re a bigwig with a reserved space convenient to your office, as was the owner of a Jaguar I spotted parked outside JPL’s Flight Operations Facility whose license plate frame read “My other car is a Mars rover,” you’re loath to give up a good spot. This partly explains why, come lunchtime, most of JPL’s workforce, of whom 70 percent are male, prefer to chow down “on-lab” at one of three staff cafeterias—the Red Planet, Orbit, and Crater.

Grotzinger, who often lunches at the Orbit Café, where he and colleagues discuss the upcoming mission, is well aware that should the rover find evidence of past or present life on Mars, it would constitute the proverbial grand slam homerun. “Don’t I wish we had the technology to understand Mars well enough that we could know exactly where to look to increase our possibilities of finding life,” says Grotzinger. That’s beyond the reach of the spacecraft orbiting Mars today. “So what we did is, we backed up. We said, ‘Look, we’re not gonna swing for the fences just yet. We’re not looking for life, we are looking for what we call habitable environments.’ This is a step below that search for life, and it’s a step above the search for water.”

What happened to the water that once flowed on Mars? “Probably most of it froze to form the polar ice cap, and also the extensive permafrost regions at high latitudes,” says Grotzinger. Some water molecules are likely trapped inside minerals, and Curiosity is equipped to detect this form of water.

If Mars’ wet past was ever conducive to life as we know it, the rover’s 165-pound scientific suite—about 10 times the size of the payloads humped by either Spirit or Opportunity—is designed to find out. Rock samples will be acquired with a percussive drill, and soil samples with a scoop. The rover’s robotic arm is equipped with a tool to transfer the samples through a sieve, down a funnel, and inside the rover itself for X-ray analysis. Curiosity also sports a laser that can hit rocks as far as 23 feet away with enough energy to produce a puff of glowing, ionized plasma gas that can then be studied using a special camera. There are 10 instruments in all, an impressive array of analytic gear with acronyms that sound like the names of techno bands (RAD, REMS), and a 1960s folk group (SAM, DAN, and MARDI). The endearing anthropomorphic values don’t stop there.

With multiple cameras propped atop its giraffe-like mast and encased in a compartment shaped vaguely like SpongeBob’s head, along with a robotic arm that calls to mind a giant fiddler crab, one is tempted to view Curiosity as a living, breathing thing. Imagine the love child of ET and a Willys Jeep.

The rover weighs close to a ton and stretches nearly 11 feet long. Curiosity is about twice the size of each of the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. “The Beast” is what JPL spokesman Guy Webster calls it.

About David Freed

Contributing editor David Freed is a pilot, novelist, and former Los Angeles Times reporter.

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